A First Look by Edward Gross


            If there were two roles that have defined Christopher Walken as an actor, it would undoubtedly be his Academy Award winning tour of duty of Vietnam in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and the center of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, The Dead Zone.

            The power of the latter is still felt to this day, a point driven home by the response a seven-minute trailer of a TV series version unspooled by the UPN network at this year’s “upfront” garnered. Offers former Star Trek producer Michael Piller, who is guiding what is a summer series that will debut on the USA Network rather than UPN, “I was told by people who were there that there were cheers when the lights came up after that seven minute trailer. People were wondering why, despite the fact the network announced us as a midseason show, we weren’t given a lock on the schedule and told to go into production. But the truth is, it was the highest-testing pilot in the history of the network, and if they don’t want it, I think somebody else will.”

            The premise of The Dead Zone  is that school teacher Johnny Smith goes into a coma following a terrible car accident, and awakens five years later with the ability to touch a person and see either their past or their future. Both the novel and the film chronicled Smith’s efforts to cope with this power while simultaneously having to deal with the fact that he’s lost five years of his life and that the woman he loves, Sarah, has moved on and married another man. The series casts Anthony Michael Hall as Smith and DS9’s Nicole DeBoer as Sarah.

            While he had not read the novel or seen the film, Piller investigated both when the opportunity came to produce the series version. “I became intrigued by the opportunity to explore the impact of an extraordinary blessing and/or curse that an ordinary man is given by fate or God, depending on who’s point of view you take,” he says, “and how it affects who he is, how he fits in, what he’s going to do for the world, where he’s going to be.

            “The first approach that people said they were thinking about was to start the series at the end of the movie, if you will,” he continues, “and basically have Johnny Smith on the run after he’s tried to kill a politician [who, in a vision, he saw triggering World War III] and people are chasing him through the series as he tries to help others while he’s on the road. I said, ‘You know, it’s sort of like The Incredible Hulk, it’s sort of The Fugitive and it sort of feels derivative. I don’t think you want to do a series where the equivalent of John Hinckley, Jr. is your hero.’ I went back to the book and realized that the book itself was very episodic. What I thought would be interesting would be to actually do justice to the book; to look at this as an opportunity to do the definitive adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. To take it slowly; we have the length of the series to really explore this character’s growth, from who he is at the very beginning – plain old Johnny Smith – and see how he grows as a character as he goes on this extraordinary journey into a new kind of existence. I just came back and said, ‘Look, I think the primary goal that you guys want for the network is to attract the audience that’s interested in Stephen King.’”

            This certainly fit in with what Piller had been told by UPN executives in the beginning, who made it clear that they were interested in “brand name” entertainment, as it was a formula that seemed to work for them.

            “Well,” muses Piller, “it seemed to me that the appeal of a brand name show is to appeal to the brand audience. I said, ‘Look, let’s go after this by setting the goal specifically to satisfy the Stephen King audience and the Stephen King fan-base. Let’s give them Stephen King; let’s do the real thing; let’s do the real book.’ When I was at Star Trek, fundamentally my attitude was, ‘It’s Gene Roddenberry’s universe, let’s see how we can turn it into a good television show week after week. I don’t have to make it any different than it is.’ So the idea of taking Stephen King’s universe and really adapting it, per my research I had a very distinct feeling that fans of Stephen King were not particularly satisfied with adaptations of most of his works, although Dead Zone might be an exception.

            “Now, I don’t think it’s a great movie,” he elaborates, “but I do think Christopher Walken is great in it. I think the reason that it’s so successful as a movie is because Chris Walken was perfect for the part and I thought the biggest challenge right off the bat for us was to fill his shoes. I just said, ‘This will not work with a leading man type person in the role.’ I really wanted to find somebody off-center who could provide a worthy successor to what Chris Walken did, and I think that with Anthony Michael Hall we did that.”

            Anthony Michael Hall? Former Brat Packer? Star of such films as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club? THAT Anthony Michael Hall?

            “He was my first choice,” Piller emphasizes, “and the basis of that first choice was that I saw him play Bill Gates in The Pirates of Silicon Valley. Of course I was familiar with his work as a child and caught a couple of things in his more adult career, but when I saw the Bill Gates film, I said, ‘Man, this guy is ready. He just lights up the screen and it’s one of those qualities that is rare. He’s interesting to look at, he’s accessible, he’s likable, he’s off-center, he’s just a very special talent.’ He turned out to be exactly the right casting. All I can tell you is that of all the tings I have done in my life, casting has not been one of my specialties. This time I was right. I think that The Dead Zone movie is dark for television, and one of the goals that everybody agreed on was that we needed an accessible Johnny Smith; someone a little easier to relate to who wasn’t quite as dark as Christopher Walken was in the movie. I think that’s what we get with Anthony Michael Hall. You really like the guy, and that’s a quality that will carry the series a long way.”